Biofuels and the Right to Food: Time for the US to get its head out of the sand

Timothy Wise

Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, speaks today (Nov. 27) at 3:00 pm EDT at Tufts University. The distinguished lecture will be webcast live. Click for webcast information and for more information on the event, which is open to the public.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently decided to keep the nation’s head buried deep in the sand when it comes to biofuels policy, refusing to waive the U.S. ethanol mandate in order to ease price pressures in corn and soybeans following the severe U.S. drought. Europe, the other major market feeding its cars at the expense of the world’s people, lifted its collective head from the depths long enough last month to reduce from 10% to 5% the mandated share of transportation fuel that can come from food sources. No such acknowledgment of reality here, where 40% of our corn crop goes to make ethanol.

The right to food, now recognized worldwide, demands action. So too does Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. “It is imprudent to support, let alone to mandate, extra agrofuel production when food prices are high and volatile,” he wrote last month. Indeed, De Schutter has established himself as one of the world’s most passionate and effective advocates for decisive action on biofuels and a wide and impressive range of other issues he has taken on under his UN mandate.

The right to food emerged from efforts to define voluntary guidelines on the issue following the UN’s 1996 World Food Summit. The approach uses a human rights framework to assess the realization of full access to adequate food for everyone. The food price spikes of 2007-8 put the issue at the center of international policy-making. De Schutter was appointed to his position in 2008 and immediately argued for a more far-reaching response to the food crisis.

His small office has produced an astonishing array of influential reports, briefing notes, and policy interventions, while carrying out national assessments on the realization of the right to food. (Stay tuned: the United States will get such an assessment in the coming year.)  He has taken the office well beyond safety-net policies and into some of the most important and contentious policy issues facing the international community.

His office has called for greater attention to agro-ecology, aggressive restrictions on commodity speculation, regulation of growing agribusiness concentration in the agri-food value chain, urgent attention to climate change and bioenergy, restrictions on land grabs, improved seed policies to support biodiversity, and changes to multilateral trade rules. Among many others. (Seriously, I know him and I don’t know how he and his small staff do it.)

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Special Rapporteur’s influential voice in current policy debates. One of the important messages he brings is to remind policy-makers that hunger is above all about access, not supply. Increased production without addressing livelihoods, income, inequality and discrimination, worker’s rights, and what Amartya Sen calls “entitlements” will make no difference to the incidence of hunger.

As he wrote in his acceptance of a second three-year mandate last year, “Today, too many [governments] continue to see hunger as a problem of supply and demand, when it is primarily a problem of a lack of access to productive resources such as land and water, of unscrupulous employers and traders, of an increasingly concentrated input providers’ sector, and of insufficient safety nets to support the poor. Too much attention has been paid to addressing the mismatch between supply and demand …  while comparatively too little attention has been paid both to the imbalances of power in the food systems and to the failure to support the ability of small-scale farmers to feed themselves, their families, and their communities.”

As my own work shows, the global community has yet to address the key drivers of recent food prices, which have spiked three times in the last five years. Those include:

  • Biofuels, which are still expanding, driving up import costs for developing countries;
  • financial speculation on commodities markets, which are still largely unregulated;
  • climate change, which continues unchecked with little action on either mitigation or adaptation for developing country producers;
  • inadequate public food reserves, which are still widely dismissed as inefficient by global powers;
  • insufficient investment in and protection of domestic food producers in developing countries (see my report on Mexican maize farmers), which are still battered by imports and undermined by market failures and misplaced donor priorities.

The United States government still has its head in the sand when it comes to biofuels, and most of these other urgent issues. The Special Rapporteur in his upcoming speech at Tufts University calls the right to food “a weapon against global hunger.” Hopefully it is a weapon that can awaken U.S. leaders from their self-imposed blindness to the impacts of their actions on the global right to food. But then it’s hard to see much of anything when your head is in the sand.

For more publications from the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, visit his extensive web site.

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4 Responses to “Biofuels and the Right to Food: Time for the US to get its head out of the sand”

  1. It seems to me that you omit the link between food prices and energy. In my view that is a very strong link – which is also the underlying factor for the bio-fuel expansion. As long as we have an agriculture system that is so dependent on fossil fuel, any increase in fossil fuel prices will result in higher food prices. Read for instance,

  2. Jonathan L. Wright says:

    There are articles that state that 40% of the estimated 2012 harvest or 11.8 Billion Bushels of corn will go to the production of ethanol does not go far enough. It fails to clarify that the ethanol industry creates two products, ethanol and distilled grains for feed lot uses. (If you don’t understand distilled grains there are many sources in the internet that will explain it’s impact in Feedlot production) There is about 10 to 15 percent loss of solids (distilled grains) in the ethanol production. If you take that 4.7 Billion Bushels of corn that goes into Ethanol/Distilled Grains production you will realize about 4.25 Billion Bushels of Distilled Grain the will go into Feedlot production. This increases the 3.9 Billion Bushels (originally designated for Feedlot production) to 8.1 Billion Bushels going to the Feedlots. This now represents about 68% of the project corn harvest going to Feedlots for creating food. Figures represented here are from the projected corn harvest figures from earlier this summer. These figures are from the following NY Times article.

  3. […] on biofuels and a wide and impressive range of other issues he has taken on under his UN mandate. (read the rest of this post) Read more on the food crisis from Timothy A. Wise on Triple […]

  4. Timothy A. Wise says:

    On the energy-food links, no omission intended. It is indeed deeper even than we all think, linked even by the fact that commodity index funds are dominated by energy commodities, driving the index and dragging agriculture commodities along with them, regardless of supply and demand conditions in those particular markets. See some of my earlier posts on financial speculation and biofuels. I’m looking at the food-fuel-finance linkages in some current research. Stay tuned.

    On those pesky distiller grains, it all depends what you are counting. It is true that 40% of US corn (more or less, depending on the year) goes to ethanol, and it is also true, as Jonathan points out, that the DDGS that result are an appropriate feed for some animals. So the net diversion of corn for ethanol is less than 40%. We addressed that briefly on page 8 in our report on US ethanol impacts on corn prices and developing countries, and noted some of the issues with that:

    The net diversion is generally taken into account in the estimates of the impacts of corn diversion for ethanol on corn prices, and it is taken into account in the studies we rely on for our estimates. It doesn’t change the upward trend in corn use for ethanol, nor their price impacts. But the point is well taken that, depending on what you’re measuring, the net diversion of corn from feed/food uses may be more like 28% rather than 40%. It’s still a proven driver of prices and it still competes with feedlots for corn, which is why the livestock companies were calling for a waiver of the RFS..